Technology in Control

When we worry about automation in the future, we usually picture robots replacing humans on the assembly line. However, the RoboBoss, an automated, algorithmic application that manages, with no human oversight, everyone from delivery drivers to cleaners, is already here. Employees who work under RoboBosses report feeling a profound sense of workplace alienation, and there are also concerns that RoboBosses increase discrimination against minority groups. Governments say it is now time to tame these ‘intelligent algorithms.’ Will employers recognize the dangers in time?

In 2017, writing for Global Voices, I covered the story of an investigative reporter who went undercover at an Amazon distribution center outside of Tokyo. He wanted to understand why there had been five worker deaths at the sprawling 650,000 square-foot facility. During my own research, it was disquieting to learn that an automated employee management system had played a role in these deaths by setting grueling, unforgiving schedules. Since then, the technology has only become more entrenched in Amazon’s Japanese installations 1.

The journalist discovered that, thanks to automatically generated work assignments with almost no oversight by a human manager, Amazon employees would walk 30 km during a ten-hour shift 2. This exertion, combined with frigid warehouse temperatures in winter, and stifling conditions during the summers were too much for some workers, who collapsed and died.

Reporting for other publications such as Field Service Digital 3, I’ve kept on researching and writing about the application of technology in the Japanese workplace. Since the deaths in 2017, union leaders in Japan say that not only has Amazon failed to relax intense workloads but has actually increased worker tracking to improve productivity. These algorithms assess a stream of data collected by sensors affixed to humans and machines alike 4. The worst-performing employees are automatically fired 5.

While Amazon is the most famous example of businesses that use technology to schedule, track, evaluate and even fire workers, automated employee management applications (RoboBosses) are now used by businesses globally 6. Although a RoboBoss may suggest an artificially intelligent robot manager, automated employee management systems actually make decisions based on recipe-like algorithms designed by their human masters 7.

Why Would Employers Use a RoboBoss?

For companies that rely on a large number of workers in their operations, such as big box retailers and fleet operators, RoboBosses get more things done, at scale. If routine tasks can be delegated to the automated, algorithmic decisions of a RoboBoss, fewer managers can oversee more workers.

RoboBosses are not just about increasing productivity. An argument for RoboBosses is that human managers are often fallible, and not only when it comes to attempting to manage dozens of employees every day.

“It’s argued that human managers, by nature of personality, mood or simple competence, are prone to making mistakes.”

These mistakes, proponents of RoboBoss’ argue, affect employee productivity and even retention – employees leave managers, not companies, or so the saying goes 8. So how could a RoboBoss be any worse 9?

Whatever the rationale, automated employee management applications have been adopted by businesses in a variety of sectors with Uber, the ride-hailing service, being a well-known example 10. Uber’s drivers never interact with a live human manager. Everything in their mobile workplaces is done through an app, which algorithmically recommends the best drivers to paying customers by analyzing positive passenger recommendations and other signals of quality. Get more positive reviews, and you get more pickups and more income. A reliance on objective data, combined with an utter lack of interaction whatsoever with a potentially irrational, error-prone human manager is a feature, not a bug, for Uber drivers 11.

In other industries, automated employee management applications are used to schedule tasks for jobs where workers have been traditionally independent, such as dispatch maid services and hotel housekeepers. These cleaners typically travel on a set course, from room to room, and from floor to floor, with no variation from day to day. These workers used to decide when and how to complete tasks, and when to take a break.

The Risk: Exchanging Employee Autonomy for Employee Alienation

However, this human pace of activity is being disrupted. The hospitality industry is increasingly using apps linked to a RoboBoss to squeeze more productivity out of these workers. Housekeepers are given a mobile device with an app that schedules which rooms to clean, and when. Housekeepers report enduring unrealistic schedules that keep them too busy to take breaks, while also feeling a sense of powerlessness, with no ability to decide how they will do their work 12.

Regulatory changes intended to improve worker safety by implementing remote monitoring technology also make it easier for employers to introduce automated oversight to more and more kinds of work 13. For example, transport companies equip their fleets with electronic logging devices (ELDs), a technology that records driving time and optimizes driving habits by limiting daily driving time and preventing dangerous fatigue. However, data from ELDs can also be used to automatically monitor driver performance. A central fleet management system can collect and assess this data to correct driver behavior or terminate employees (the European Union’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation may help protect workers from some of these intrusive surveillance technologies) 14 15.

Like workers in other industries, transport drivers also report feeling powerless to manage their time, especially when an app tells them their driving time is up for the day before they have made all of their deliveries, leaving more work for the next day. This sense of powerlessness, combined with a lack of privacy that may violate the law, due to increasing video surveillance to improve driver behavior, has helped contribute to an increasing labor shortage in the trucking industry 16 17 18.

Office workers are also increasingly working with RoboBosses, especially since the shift to working from home in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic 19. Human bosses use automated programs to supervise and report on remote employees, to make sure no one is goofing off at work and surfing the internet. This data can also be analyzed and used at scale to algorithmically determine promotions and salaries – decisions that are inherently nuanced, subjective and human 20.

RoboBosses: Human-Designed Algorithms and Amplifying Inherent Bias

Automated systems are used to evaluate, sort and discard resumes during the hiring process, with no human oversight. Using automation to save time during the job application process should seem like a no-brainer. However, algorithmic filters can easily block qualified candidates, based on lack of job experience, education or even facial expressions 21. Algorithms reflect the inherent biases of their human creators 22.

There are worries that algorithms, because they lack human intuition and social understanding when applying rules, will not only produce biased outcomes, but will actually increase the inequality experienced by historically disadvantaged groups.

In a recent example in the United Kingdom, a number of non-white couriers for the food delivery service Uber Eats claimed they were automatically fired because the company’s facial identification software – which depends on algorithms to confirm identity – could not recognize their faces. Uber’s human engineers passed on a bias for white faces to the algorithm 23.

In order to address the problem of bias in the algorithms, engineers and researchers have started to focus on developing ethical AI. For example, scholars are helping develop a new metric that judges in the European Union can use to assess algorithms for bias and fairness 24.

How Employers Can Mitigate the Negative Impacts of the RoboBoss

The European Union is also working to place rules that govern how emerging technologies, likely more powerful than a RoboBoss, will affect human beings. On April 21, 2021, the European Union introduced its new ‘harmonised rules on artificial intelligence,’ which regulate how artificial intelligence might assess and judge everything from credit scores and insurance applications to eligibility for social welfare assistance. When designing these systems, engineers must prove the technology is safe for humans and must guarantee human oversight 25.

In the meantime, what steps should managers take to make all employees feel their basic humanity is being respected? A March 2021 report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the United Kingdom offers some advice 26.

According to the report,

“all workers must have the right to have the decisions of a RoboBoss reviewed by a human manager.”

After that, employers must make sure that automated employee management systems like RoboBosses should not set punishing work targets that rob workers of their dignity 27.

Employers must ensure employees always know when a RoboBoss is operating, and employee consent should be obtained when appropriate. In order to protect not only legal rights, but also a fundamental sense of autonomy and privacy, employers should ensure employees can understand, control and influence how their data is used.

Finally, rather than relying on legislation to regulate their behavior, employers should demonstrate they actually care about healthy workplace conditions by first consulting with employees on the development, introduction and operation of any new monitoring, assessment and scheduling technologies.

While governments are imposing regulations on RoboBosses and their artificially intelligent successors, changes that help improve workplace satisfaction will be slow to appear. Employers, on the other hand, have the power and even the responsibility to act now and rein in the RoboBoss.

Picture of Nevin Thompson

Nevin Thompson

Nevin Thompson is a copywriter, digital-marketing specialist, and Japanese-English translator who frequently writes on Japan, technology, and internet culture. He contributes a regular weekly column to online news site Global Voices, and has appeared in Quartz, Fast Company, PRI International, Japan Times and other publications. He lives on Vancouver Island with his family.


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